Chapel Hill, N.C. — The Southern Environmental Law Center sent a highly critical letter Friday to Gov. Pat McCrory, refusing to drop a lawsuit blocking the state's planned replacement for Bonner Bridge.
The letter from SELC Director Derb Carter expresses "concern and sympathy" for Hatteras Island residents who have experienced "significant hardships" because of the state Department of Transportation's decision Tuesday to close the bridge, a move Carter describes as "abrupt" and "without any warning."
"Our first hope is to see the bridge reopened as quickly as possible," he says.
But Carter then turns to criticism of McCrory's handling of the issue.
"We find it disingenuous and irresponsible that you have chosen to aggressively, publicly and inaccurately blame environmental organizations for this bridge closure," Carter writes. "As a result of your urging, we have been at the receiving end of multiple threats based on misinformation you have provided."
In a local radio interview Tuesday, McCrory blamed SELC for the bridge impasse, urging people to call the "left-wing group" in Chapel Hill: "I need public support to put pressure on that group to get out of the way and let us do a commonsense, needed bridge.
"They're holding back some safety needs," McCrory said in that interview. "They're putting people in jeopardy, and they're putting jobs in jeopardy."
The DOT two years ago awarded a contract for construction of a $216 million bridge that would parallel Bonner Bridge across Oregon Inlet but would be designed to better withstand the underwater erosion, or scour, that made Bonner Bridge vulnerable to collapse and prompted this week's emergency closure.
Lawsuits by the SELC and other groups have prevented any work from taking place, and they have appealed a federal judge's September ruling in favor of the new bridge. The groups say a 17-mile span that bypasses the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is a better long-term option, noting that N.C. Highway 12 in the fragile preserve frequently washes out in storms.
In Friday's letter, Carter argues that the DOT and Dare County officials, not SELC, are responsible for the delay in building a new bridge because their plans violate federal environmental law.
"We encourage you to provide the leadership required to resolve the closure as quickly as possible and to focus on developing a long-term solution to replace Bonner Bridge that ensures safe and dependable transportation to Hatteras Island," Carter writes to McCrory.
"When NCDOT acts contrary to the law, we will continue to seek compliance through the courts," he writes. "We are disappointed you did not contact us directly before launching your public assault on our clients, our supporters and our organizations."
Other Republican leaders have echoed McCrory's political accusations and have called for the group to drop the lawsuit.
"The Southern Environmental Law Center’s frivolous lawsuit is only the latest episode in their scheme to agitate the left and raise funds for an extreme, fringe agenda – this time, at the expense of northeastern North Carolina’s economy," House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said in a joint statement Friday.
"We’d expect no less from liberal elitists from Chapel Hill and Charlottesville (Va.,) who want to turn the Outer Banks into a private nature retreat they can visit on the weekends," the statement said.
Repair work on the bridge was set to begin Saturday, as a dredge starts what officials said could be two days of rearranging sand in the inlet to pile it up around the bridge's support structure. After that, a South Carolina company will use interlocking pieces of concrete and sandbags to reinforce the structure against further scour.
State officials haven't said when the bridge might reopen, and the DOT is running emergency ferries between Stumpy Point and Rodanthe 12 times a day to move people and goods on and off Hatteras Island.